Monday, February 28, 2011

The American Dream Fallacy

"You've been living in a dream world, Neo...You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it. Were you listening to me, Neo? Or were you looking at the woman in the red dress?  Look again."
- Morpheus

For as long as we can remember, we've all been hardwired with the same version of the American Dream: go to school, work hard, get good grades, and then graduate so that you can get a job, work hard there too and then someday buy a house with a white picket fence where you can raise your family with 2.5 kids and a dog.  And apparently, for over 90% of us, the wisdom of this mantra is gospel and beyond reproach.  The only problem with this bill of goods that we've been sold is that it leads us to believe that if we follow this mantra then someday we, too, shall make it into the promised land of the wealthy.  And because we are so "helplessly dependent" on this dream of someday becoming rich, when political issues arise that would affect the rich (such as (i) tax cuts for the rich, (ii) estate tax loopholes, (iii) lower corporate tax rates, (iv) no collective bargaining rights for unions, etc.)  we will fight to protect the rich, even if we are among the bottom 99% of Americans that the rich prey upon.  And why?  Because, again, we have all been programmed since birth to trust that going to school and getting a job will, someday, place us among the super rich that these laws will affect.  So, in a weird, looking-out-for-our-future-selves kind of way, a vote for the super rich is a vote for our American dream...or so the logic goes.  However, if we look at the facts concerning income inequality in America, the truth of the matter is that the "American Dream" as we know it is a falsehood and we have been hoodwinked, bamboozled, led astray, and run amok.

As it turns out, there are a few words missing from the age-old "go to school, get a job" mantra.  Indeed, the full and complete sentence is actually more like "go to school, and get a that you can work for somebody else."  The entire purpose of K-12, undergrad, grad and/or professional school education is to teach you how to become a productive member of society working for a company or firm or hospital or business entity that somebody else already owns which, in reality, serves only to make them rich, not you.  We're never taught in school to actually start our own businesses or become the captains of our own fate.  (in fact the wealthiest among us have repeatedly dropped out of school - see Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg) Instead we're taught to choose our station in life in the same way that we would order from a pre-selected menu at McDonald's where all of the options are conveniently set out before us.  78% of Americans believe that having a job (a.k.a. working for somebody else) is extremely important for reaching the American Dream.  Many mothers and fathers lovingly tell their children "you can grow up to become a doctor, lawyer and such." But we never stop to observe that even doctors and lawyers are nothing more than glorified at-will employees who can be (and have been) laid off like the rest of us, especially during hard economic times.

In its March/April 2011 issue, Mother Jones ran a piece aptly entitled "It's the Inequality, Stupid" that everybody should take 5 minutes to read.  In short, it basically shows us, in hard concrete numbers, just how wide the gap is between the bottom 99% of the country who think they're going to make it to the "American Dream" someday and the top 1% who have already been living that dream for the past several generations.  Moreover, it also shows us just how much wider that gap becomes every time we enact legislation that helps the rich stay richer and the poor stay poorer.  For example, roughly 85% of all the wealth in this country is in the hands of the top 20%, even though most Americans (92% of us) mistakenly believe that the top 20% only control about 30% of America's wealth.  What is particularly eye opening is the graph below.  If you direct your attention to the graph on the left, it is notable to observe that the average household income of the bottom 99% of the country has effectively remained flat-lined since 1979 whereas the average household income for the top 1% is the ONLY group of Americans who have continually witnessed an increase in their household income, going from $500k/yr in 1979 to approximately $2 Million/yr in 2007:

What this tells us is that despite all of the Left-Wing and Right-Wing rhetoric surrounding the laws that this country has enacted over the past 30+ years about tax-cuts this and capital gains that, if you're not in the top 1% of the country then none of these policies have helped you.  Again, take a look at the graph on the left and keep your eye on the dark blue and light blue lines which represent the bottom 40% of Americans.  Starting at the left in 1979 and working our way to the right in 2007:

  • under President Carter, they are at the bottom
  • under President Reagan, they are at the bottom
  • under President Bush, Sr., they are at the bottom
  • under President Clinton, they are at the bottom
  • under President Bush, Jr., they are still at the bottom
  • (and to be fair, if we were to extend this graphic out to 2011, they would still remain at the bottom under President Obama)

Yet it is the bottom 40% that is consistently suckered into believing that the American Dream mandates that they must vote in favor of tax cuts for the rich or that they must vote against the collective bargaining rights of unions that advocate for workers and against corporate interests.  And when the bottom 40% vote in favor of these things, the only people who benefit from these decisions are the top 1% who literally own the companies and corporations that these laws actually affect. 

Of course, nobody likes to be told that they can't live out their version of the American Dream and become one of the top 1% some day. It is for this very reason that any discussions of class-consciousness are avoided by politicians at all costs.  Try getting elected as the "Debbie Downer" candidate who tells Joe The Plumber that his dumb ass, in all likelihood, is never going to own a fortune 500 company and therefore he needs to focus more on issues that affect his own personal finances and less on issues that only affect the pocket books of corporations.  Barack Obama didn't even go that far in 2008 and he was promptly labeled as a "Socialist" for even suggesting that those in the top 1% should, perhaps, shoulder a little more of our nation's burden.

The poor detest the word "socialism" (even though many don't even know what it means) but, ironically, if our country had actually enacted a few more socialist safeguards along the way, the entire nation wouldn't be in the financial ditch that its currently in.  This isn't to suggest that the United States needs to convert from capitalism to socialism, but how can we honestly expect our nation to prosper under a system where 9 out of 10 dollars go to a few million people and the other 298 million of us are left to split the last dollar amongst ourselves?  As Robert Reich recently opined:
"The truth is that while the proximate cause of America's economic
plunge was Wall Street's excesses leading up to the crash of 2008, its
underlying cause -- and the reason the economy continues to be lousy
for most Americans -- is so much income and wealth have been going to
the very top that the vast majority no longer has the purchasing power
to lift the economy out of its doldrums. "
It is difficult to imagine that the conventional wisdom of the American Dream will be successfully refuted in the court of public opinion any time soon.  Until that day comes, unfortunately, we seem to be relegated to a socio-economic system where the poor remain poor, the rich remain rich, and our politicians continue to be unjustly enriched for keeping it that way.  Maybe Oscar Ameringer was right when he said:
Politics is the gentle art of getting votes from the poor and campaign funds from the rich, by promising to protect each from the other.
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